Paws of Valor: Alyeska’s Avalanche Search and Rescue Heroes

Words & Photography by Carlee Christensen

Eyes set on the dog hole where a staged victim is buried, Raven–a spirited black lab training to be an avalanche rescue dog–is eagerly waiting to be released to “superman” into the snow and recover the subject. Her nose twitches as she uses her senses trained to track a human scent, even under a few feet of snow. Her paws tap on the powdery snow as she gets ready to sprint. Her handler sets her loose to perform the daily training exercise they have been working on for months. With her unwavering commitment and unyielding spirit, Raven forces her way into the dog hole and pulls the victim out with a tug toy they have been holding. With each successful training session, Raven plays tug joyously as her reward for learning the skills she needs to save someone on the slopes.

“Right now, for her at least, we are just trying to paint the picture in little pieces that are then going to add up to the big search picture when she’s getting into area searches,” says Alyeska Resort assistant ski patrol director and Raven’s handler Ryan (Hutch) Hutchins-Cabibi.

The life of a search and rescue dog doesn’t come easy. They face harsh climatic conditions, treacherous terrains, and the stress-inducing physical demands of their life-saving work. Even in their training exercises, there could be confusing moments, but it is just a learning experience.

“They’ll cue into really random stuff that you do. So if you were to, halfway down the search area, take your goggles and lift them up and the dog… sees you do that, they’ll cue into that behavior and be like ‘OK, what do they want me to do? What are they looking for when they do that?’” Hutch said.

The lives of search and rescue teams are a constant learning experience where, “The handler learns just as much as the dog does,” added Alyeska Resort ski patrol director and dog handler Cody Burns.

As much as she can learn from her human handlers, Raven is lucky to have a mentor with a couple years of experience etched into her nose. Stormy-an optimistic golden retriever trained to detect the faintest whiff of buried scent-has demonstrated the resilience and training essential for a life dedicated to search and rescue.

“When we do beacon drills, we put a beacon in a backpack and bury it in the snow, then the patrollers have to find it with their beacons. Stormy just ended up finding it and that didn’t have hardly any human scent on it. It just was a different smelling thing under the snow and she keyed in on it,” Burns said.

Day in and day out, Stormy and Raven energetically venture into their daily training practices. Their handlers guide them through area search problems, providing them with the necessary skills they will need when and if they are in a life-or-death situation. Although it hasn’t happened yet, preparation is the essence of their work.

As Stormy and Raven return to the lower mountain aid station, the dogs go back to just being dogs. Back to playing with each other, leaving paw prints on the mountain, and most importantly, leaving a tribute to the enduring spirit of avalanche search and rescue heroes. In the face of adversity, these dogs teach us that resilience is not just a quality; it’s a way of life.

True North Magazine

True North is a publication of the University of Alaska Anchorage Department of Journalism and Public Communications. It has been published since 1995.